Ravel Morrison, An Englishman in Mexico – Trading the crown for Sombreros

One of the most promising youth players in Man United’s history, Ravel Morrison now finds himself playing football in Mexico’s burning cauldron of a league.
Ravel Morrison, A Globetrotter in Mexico.
Ravel Morrison, A Globetrotter in Mexico.

The ecstasy, the bewilderment, the sheer passion. Welcome yourself to the world of Ravel Morrison, the mercurial maestro who reduces grown men to a state of giddiness rarely seen beyond the closed duopoly of Messi and Ronaldo. In a recent Mexican League game, Morrison, an English striker, is seen taking on numerous defenders before scoring a goal for his team Atlas FC, from outside the box, in such an assured and composed manner. This also happened to be against the biggest club side in Mexico, Club America. The commentator during the goal goes into a state of pandemonium, ‘’More Reason, More Reason, More Reason!’ he screams, attempting to pronounce the players name. Ravel Morrison. The enigma who has not taken the typical Englishman’s career route.

‘’This guy was the best young kid that I’ve seen in my life…I’ve never seen a guy look so comfortable on the football pitch, Pogba used to look up to this boy’’ Rio Ferdinand would say in an interview last year about Morrison, with a hint of sadness in his tone of voice. Morrison has been an enigma in the game, a player with bewildering flair that embellished itself in his DNA, yet balanced by a mental fragility that has seen him unable to play at the level his talent undoubtedly warrants.

In many ways, his story so far bears uncanny resemblance to another former Man United youth product, Adrian Doherty, who played alongside the famed class of 92 and was said to have been naturally more gifted than Ryan Giggs. Yet injuries, and an interest in life beyond football, meant Doherty faded into obscurity, passing away in an accident in 1997 having never made a professional career out of the game. Yet, listen to interviews recorded only last year with Ryan Giggs and Brendan Rodgers, who both played with Doherty, and they still sound in awe of him, remembering even all these years later, what a talent he was, with the same tone of regret that embodies Ferdinand’s comments on Morrison. Class remembers class.

Yet, Morrison is not fading into obscurity, like a Phoenix, he has risen, in a land rarely touched before by an English player, and remarkably has been a success. Mexico. That unforgiving land where fans, in my experience, have more raw passion and emotion that anywhere in Europe. The land that lauds you as Gods if you play well, but exile you  if you fail. This  land  with the sun beating down, tests your resolve.

The soil which crushed English dreams in 1986, has provided seeds for a prodigal English talent to resurrect himself. The rebirth. The land that Morrison has thrived on, its unbridled rawness and sheer exuberance matching his own uncontrollable talent.

At 5’9, Morrison is never the tallest player on the pitch, yet he commands attention. There’s an authority and confidence to his play, he knows exactly what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, step-overs, dinks, a beautiful deft touch all part of his weaponry, how bitter the irony that a man with such a vast inventory of play, so many options, would at numerous points in his career find himself out of options.

An erratic yet brilliant youth player, Ravel Morrison was given chances by Manchester United to build a career at the club, such was his potential. ‘’Ravel Morrison’s ability was just a scandal’’ Gary Neville once said of the player, ‘’he was an unbelievable player, a Paul Gascoigne-type who could beat men and score some incredible players’’. Yet, his behaviour become indefensible, he was convicted of intimidating a witness to a knife robbery, and then later on, of criminal damage. Those that know him have hinted at a troubled childhood and an inability on his part to conquer his demons. United felt it was a lost cause, and sold him reluctantly to West Ham in January 2012.

However, in a plot swerve nobody saw coming, Morrison would be sent to the dentist during pre-season to have seven teeth removed due to their poor condition, a bizarre story that the media saw as yet another example of his recklessness, it seems, as well as having Gaza’s talent, he also carried his unpredictability outside of the pitch. He had a mediocre loan spell at Birmingham City for the 2012/13 season, and then a return to West Ham highlighted with a special solo goal in their 3-0 win over Spurs in October 2013. Yet failure to maintain consistency and rein in his special ability led to loans deal for QPR and Cardiff in the Championship, after which his contract with West Ham ended.

In a recurring theme, West Ham manager Sam Allardyce spoke fondly, in a father-like capacity, of Morrison’s talent: ‘’It’s not that he has to impress me as a footballer, we know about his talent. It’s about playing the talent and himself to a disciplined life in general’’. Morrison is not the first player to have an unbelievable level of talent harboured by a reckless lifestyle, as Balotelli, a few years older than Morrison, will testify to.

However, in typically spectacular fashion, Ravel Morrison would not drop down into the lower leagues, rather, he made the move to Italian giants Lazio, scoring two goals in a 2015 pre-season win and ‘’sending the fans into ecstasy’’. Yet this would once again prove to be a false dawn: Morrison would go on to make eight appearances for the club during his two year spell there, supposedly failing to learn Italian and being perceived to not be putting the required effort into training. A loan deal was eventually made in January 2017, back to Loftus Road with QPR, yet after making five appearances, the club baulked at the £2m fee being asked by Lazio to make the fee permanent.

Birmingham City and their manager Harry Redknapp were sniffing around a deal in the summer of 2017, it seemed for all intents and purposes that Morrison would be loaned out either to Birmingham or a team in the lower leagues of football, his Italian adventure over. An exotic trip to tell people about, another in the long line of Englishmen unable to conquer club football overseas. The narrative had been restored to order. Supposedly.

Mexico is a country with an enormous footballing culture. Hosts of two World Cups that have produced two all-time great moments: 1970 Brazil’s unbelievable team goal in the final and 1986, Maradona’s infamous ‘’Hand of God’’ goal. In a globalised game, Mexico is refreshing in the sense that fans primarily watch their own local football rather than gaze towards the Premier League or  La Liga.  Their top division, known as Liga MX, contains 18 teams, Club America, who play their home games at the 100,000 capacity Estadio Azteca, being the most successful club historically. 

(The magnificent Estadio Azteca)

High attendances are seen throughout games, with one club, Monterrey averaging 48,000 fans per game last season, and TV viewing figures are not only high in Mexico, but also America, with its substantial Mexican population. In regional terms, the Mexican clubs have complete domination, remarkably winning every single edition of the CONCACAF Champions League since its inception in 2008. French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac plays in the league for club Tigres, and was even picked in France’s Euro 2016 squad while playing in Mexico, suggesting there is global respect for the quality of the league.

However, while financially, Mexican clubs are wealthy when compared to fellow North America and even South American teams, the quality of football remains incomparable to that being played in Europe. A game I witnessed last season between Club America and Santos Laguna resembled a scrappy mid-table English Championship game rather than the quality seen in the Premier League or top leagues in Europe. This could be why we have seen less Mexican players over the years move to Europe to play football, Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela being the most notable.

However, for sheer experience, a Mexican football match is something all football fans needs to experience in their life.

(Local league games, such as this Pumas match, regularly attract sizeable and passionate crowds)

Atlas Futbol Club are producers of the game who do not reap the rewards of their work. A club that has developed Mexican legends Jared Borgetti and Rafael Marquez amongst dozens of others has not won a trophy in over 60 years. The fans, known as ‘’The Faithful’’, have yet to lose that faith however. They are essentially what would be known as a selling team in England, with young players being moved on to bigger, financially wealthier clubs in Mexico. However, they had the 3rd largest average attendance last season and did make the league play-offs, so they are no minnows. As with a lot of Mexican clubs, they also have a beautifully coloured and vibrant kit.

It was to this club, far, far away that Ravel Morrison landed on 31 August 2017. Left-field would be an understatement  to describe the transfer, Antonio Pedroza had been the only previous English-born player to feature in Mexican club football…but he grew up in the country. Here was Morrison, unable to settle into Italian life, and with a reputation for ill disciplined, being sent to play football in one of the most intense countries in the world. A place where it’s quite often literally hard to catch your breath due to the high altitude of many stadiums. It was such a mismatch  of a move, almost as if Lazio were pranking Morrison by sending him here on loan, a move so ridiculous and obscure…that Ravel Morrison had nothing to lose.

“I’m increasingly satisfied with him — he’s a player with a lot of quality,” Atlas manager Jose Guadalupe Cruz said last month of Morrison. “It’s evident he’s struggled with the rhythm, but he’s playing regularly, is under consideration and he’s going to contribute.” Morrison had scored two goals in his previous two games for the club and been applauded off the pitch by fans when substituted. “I’m getting used to it now,” Ravel Morrison would say of his time so far at the club. “It’s picking up, it’s been good.”

The Mexican league focuses on technical play, it’s a league where possession rules over all, and most crucially for Morrison, a place where the English media does not gaze its scrutinizing lens. He has a degree of freedom from the media here and is in a league that plays to his strength. As a player that thrives on entertaining, the intense Mexican crowds can only fuel his resolve on the pitch.  That’s why he’s fitted into the club and still aged only 24, this could be the platform for Ravel Morrison to eventually work his way back to the Premier League. Or who knows, maybe he will stay in Mexico and become a hero of the people.

Ravel Morrison doesn’t do linear trajectories.

Santokie Nagulendran

Writes about football across the globe, which provides a therapeutic release from the emotional turmoil of supporting Tottenham Hotspur